So it’s been a loooong time since we’ve had a new Woody Allen Wednesday! post. As I’ve lamented once or twice before, the school year can get busy so coordination can be tricky. But that’s in the past! With the freedom of summer vacation Andrew and I have joined forces once more for another dual deconstruction of one of Woody Allen’s modern masterpieces. (Granted, knowing today was Wednesday for sure was tough with it being summer but Andrew helped me.) This time, because we’re so efficient, we’re covering Woody Allen’s talent for drama and comedy simultaneously with 2004’s Melinda and Melinda.
One of the things I love about Woody Allen is the man’s body of work contains so many lesser known gems. He’s put out nearly a film a year for over forty years now. That’s a lot of movies! Admittedly, I love almost all of them. However, they all don’t grab the pop culture consciousness in a way that makes them mega hits. For every Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Midnight In Paris, there are dozens of other equally brilliant yet lesser known films that touch on the comedy, tragedy, and deep philosophy of life. Melinda and Melinda is a shining example of this. The film opens with four friends – Sy (Wallace Shawn), Max (Larry Pine), Louise (Stephanie Roth Haberle), and Al (Neil Pepe) – out to dinner. Sy and Max, two playwrights, are debating whether life is tragic or comic at its core:
Sy – “The essence of life isn’t comic, it’s tragic. I mean there’s nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence.”
Max – “Oh, I disagree. I mean, you know philosopher’s call it absurd because in the end, all you can do is laugh. Human aspiration is so ludicrous and irrational.”
Sy – “Well…”
Max – “I mean, if the underlying reality of our being was tragic, my plays would make more than yours at the box office because my stories would resonate more profoundly with the human soul.”
Sy – “It’s exactly because tragedy hits on the truly painful essence of life that people run to my comedies, for an escape.”
Max – “No, no.”
Sy – “Tragedy confronts, comedy escapes.”
Louise – “Look, you guys, what…what are we discussing here? Is there a deeper reality in comedy or tragedy? Who can even make such a judgment?”
Al – “Let me tell you a story and you tell me, is it material for a comedy or a tragedy? This happened to some people I know. Okay, it’s a small dinner party and the hosts are trying to impress one of their guests. Suddenly, the door bell rings and out of nowhere an unexpected person shows up.”
Sy – “A man or a woman?”
Al – “A woman. I’ll give you all the details and you tell me, comedy or tragedy. The guest enters and everyone is surprised, particularly the hosts. It turns out she has a particular problem…”
After they’ve heard what happened, Max envisions the story of Melinda (Radha Mitchell) as a tragedy. She shows up unexpectedly at the home of her childhood friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and her husband Lee (Johnny Lee Miller). Melinda has just arrived after a stay in a state mental hospital. She had an affair and her husband divorced her while gaining sole custody of their children. In the wake of losing her children, Melinda became addicted to pills and killed her former lover. In her brokenness she meets and falls for the musician Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as Laurel and Lee’s marriage begins to come undone. But Melinda’s fragile happiness is made all the more tenuous as Laurel begins to develop feelings for Ellis.
Sy on the other hand sees a great romantic comedy inherent in the narrative. While Susan (Amanda Peet) and her husband Hobie (Will Ferrell) are throwing a dinner party to woo a financier for her new film, Melinda (who is their downstairs neighbor) comes knocking at the door having taken twenty-eight sleeping pills. Wooziness, vomit, and laughing ensue as they keep her awake while she shakes off the effects of the pills. Soon they all become friends…and Hobie begins to fall for Melinda…while Melinda falls for the talented musician Billy (Daniel Sunjata)…and Susan begins to fall for her financier Steve Walsh (David Aaron Baker). Romantic misadventures, complications, and hijinks ensue. Oh yeah, Hobie’s best friends with Walt (Steve Carell) too. Is there anything funnier than Steve Carell’s comedic timing?
As the film progresses, these two stories are told simultaneously, moving back and forth (as I see it in my head) from TraMelinda’s story to CoMelinda’s story. To underscore the difference between the tragic view of life and the comic, we don’t just have two separate storylines but we have two separate casts as well. To say the very least, watching this film is a unique experience. When I watch this film I find myself reflecting on what type of film I like best. At my heart, am I more a tragedy/drama guy or more of a comedy guy? While I appreciate both artistic expressions and I certainly watch both types of films, at the end of the day – if I had to choose – I’ll always choose comedy. I love when a good dramatic/tragic film moves me (I’m a crier at movies…hoooo boy am I a crier!) and gives me rich lessons/ideas/symbols to meditate on and deconstruct. However, laughter is more important. With all the darkness and the heaviness we can find in the world, things that make us laugh and feel happy are vital. I find they don’t just make my viewing more enjoyable but are helpful for my frame of mind as well.
In Buddhism, one of the Five Aggregates that make up a human being is vijana or our store consciousness. This forms the base of everything we are. Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn explains, “When mental formations are not manifesting, they reside in our store consciousness in the form of seeds – seeds of joy, peace, understanding, compassion, forgetfulness, jealousy, fear, despair, and so on…Every time we water one of them or allow it to be watered by someone else, that seed will manifest and become a mental formation. We have to be careful about what seeds we and others water. If we let the negative seeds in us be watered, we can be overwhelmed.” Essentially the more we watch happy/joyful things the quicker we are to respond in happiness and joy to all we encounter. The more we watch scary, sad, violent things, the quicker we are to allow negative emotions to rise as our response to what we encounter in real life. This is why the idea of what we read, watch, listen to, and discuss is so important. What we give our attention to are the seeds we are watering, the seeds that grow stronger in our minds.
But this isn’t the only philosophical question Melinda and Melinda raises for its viewer nor is it the main one. Rather the central question the film asks the viewer to wrestle with is, obviously, the question Max, Sy, Louise, and Al are debating at dinner. Is life inherently tragic of comic? How we ultimately answer this question has important implications in our own lives as well.
However, as Kalie suggested while we were discussing the film after we watched it, the idea of choosing whether life is inherently tragic OR comic is something of a false dichotomy. As all of our lived experience will attest, life isn’t one or the other. Life is both. So the more important question Melinda and Melinda challenges its viewers to consider is what do we see when we look at life as we live it? Both Sy and Max are given the same basic tent poles of a story. With that information (and playing to their creative strengths), Max gives us a moving and melancholic narrative. Sy gives us hilarious hijinks. One saw a tragedy while the other found a comedy. We do this ourselves, all the time. When we look at what’s happening to and around us, do we see sadness, frustration, and tragedy or do we see happiness, hilarity, and joy? While we can’t always control what happens to and around us, we do have a large degree of control over how we respond. Turning back to Buddhism, what do we cultivate in our minds? What is our prepared/preferred way to experience and respond to life?
Case in point, back in April I was lucky enough to be one of our chaperones on the Theology Department’s trip to Italy over Easter Break. (Note, dear readers, this great story was also Kalie’s suggestion. I had another one lined up. Trust me, this was waaay better.) The trip was tirelessly organized by Judy, the teacher who’s been with our department the longest. She did a fantastic job! Then Matthew (our fearless Department Chair (not to mention a great friend of mine since grad school)), Anne (who I’ve known since I was sixteen years old!), Hannah, and I just jumped on the plain and did our part to make sure all forty-some of our charges were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there (spoiler alert: they were – the kids (and the parents who came with us too) were great). Over eight days in Italy we saw Milan, Padua, Venice, Florence, Assisi, and Rome. We’d be out of the hotel by 8:00 at the latest each morning and we’d be moving all day until around 10:00 or 11:00 each night. On our second to last night, we went to this pizza place in Rome where (much like Kramer’s dream on Seinfeld) they let you make your own pizza. We arrived around 4:30 and prepared to breathe delicious life into some pizza dough. Annnnnd this is where the philosophical question at the heart of Melinda and Melinda comes into play.
Our first group of students (the kitchen could only take four at a time) makes their pizzas by 5:00. They eat and the rest of us wait. And wait. And…WAIT. Over TWO HOURS pass and a quarter of our students still haven’t gotten the chance to make their pizza! I’ll be honest, after seven amazing but loooong days, we were all tired (and a little ornery). Matthew, Judy, and Anne took the kids who had already eaten back to the hotel (all so tired they were happy to pass on gelato for their bed) while Hannah and I stayed with the kids who still hadn’t made their pizzas. We were all getting a little squirrely at this point but they were finally taken down to the kitchen. As they returned they asked if they could eat their pizzas there or if we had to go and meet the rest of the group. I told them they needn’t rush. We’d waited hours for dinner, we could spare a little more time for them to eat. Moments later I looked over to see the kids putting their pizzas in boxes. What?? When I asked why one of our students told me, “They said they needed this table for another group coming in so we have to pack up.” WHAT?!? After making us wait two hours they are kicking us out??? At that point, the sheer absurdity coupled with the complete exhaustion totally broke us. Hannah and I devolved into a fit of raving, maniacal laughter. To underscore how emotionally broken we were, I’ve included the pictures one of our students sweetly took during this fit below. Beware, dear reader, these pictures are not for the faint of heart. I recognize nothing of myself in my eyes. All I see is the madness. We just couldn’t handle it anymore.
Well, fast forward to the hotel that night. The whole pizza plan had seemed to go to hell and we (the chaperones and our tour guide) were talking about it. Our tour guide was very upset over how the whole thing had turned out. I guess the pizza place had certificates they wanted to give all of us for participating in their pizza course. We skipped the gelato. The restaurant was randomly inserting people in the kitchen ahead of our group, hence the ridiculous delay, which none of us knew about. However, in the craziness I ended up finding the most beautiful night of our trip. The night before, as we walked around the Vatican, our tour guide told us to be prepared for a large number of homeless people sleeping out on the street. Traditionally, due to tourists, the city of Rome made certain to move the homeless people far from the Vatican but Pope Francis has put a stop to that. He’s said if someone has no place else to sleep, they are welcomed by the church. He’s even set up more mobile showers around the Vatican for the homeless who sleep there every night. Remembering this, our kids who were carrying their pizza home asked if they could go give it to those sleeping on the streets that night. They knew they didn’t need the food…but there were people who did. Honestly, I’m getting teary-eyed again just typing this.
I shared this with our tour guide as she lamented her frustrations of our plans going awry. Yes, nothing happened the way it should have that night. And yes, we were all a little pissy at the long wait, the exhaustion, etc…but out of all of that we found something I’ll never forget. Not only did we end up with a hilarious story, making that dinner more memorable than any other we had, but we saw our students authentically moved to live the Gospel on their own. Seeing that…wow. Nothing can be more important than that. And none of this would have happened if dinner went “as planned.” So the night could have been a tragedy as everything unfolded into a perfect storm of frustration and mistakes. But, with our eyes open, we saw both the brilliant comedy and the deeply moving beauty of the night.
In Melinda and Melinda Woody Allen gives us both simultaneously. In so doing, he invites the viewer to consider what they prefer in their art as well as what they think of the world. The answers to both of those questions can have a profound impact on our lives. So I encourage you to watch Melinda and Melinda if you haven’t seen it, or to watch it again if you have. Think about the art you like to consume and what seeds in your consciousness you are watering when you do. And think about how you look at the world. Yes, life can be hard and frustrating and heartbreakingly sad. But there’s also a lot of beauty, joy, fun, and comedy there too…if we know how to look for it.
But that’s not all ladies and gentlemen! Here’s a link to Andrew’s post on Melinda and Melinda. While you’re reading it you can appreciate the meta-experience of reading two different posts about the same movie, a movie which features two different stories about the same girl. I know, right?!? Enjoy.
 As Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn writes in The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching, ” According to Buddhism, a human being is composed of Five Aggregates (skandhas): form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. The Five Aggregates contain everything – both inside us and outside of us, in nature and in society” (176).
 Thich Nhat Hahn, The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. (New York, Broadway Books, 1999), 181.